Serious games in the services: Army vs. Navy

The US armed forces are getting into the world of gaming, and they aren't playing around.


WASHINGTON, D.C.--The US military and games: America's Army is just the tip of the iceberg. The Army's first-person shooter has become a well-known recruiting tool, but the Army and other large organizations are using games for a lot more.

Dr. James Belanich of the US Army Research Institute and Dr. Peter Perla of the Center for Naval Analyses, a nonprofit research organization that conducts independent research for the Navy, are deeply involved in the US military's use of serious games. Both have agreed to answer some questions about their programs.

Both Belanich and Perla are speaking this week at the second annual Serious Games Summit in Washington, D.C. The Summit kicks off today, and GameSpot is there to report on how the military, big business, and education are using games for more than just entertainment--and how their efforts are paying off.

GameSpot: Dr. Perla and Dr. Belanich, can you tell me a little bit about your roles and responsibilities.

Dr. Peter Perla: I am a senior member of the research staff at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) specializing in wargaming and other interactive techniques for doing and reporting analysis. I currently work in the division of CNA that provides direct support to the operating forces of the Navy and Marine Corps. I have designed games in the military, homeland security, and public-health fields and am about to lead a project sponsored by the Wargaming Department of the U.S. Naval War College to develop new techniques for wargaming what has been called “Fourth-Generation Warfare."

Dr. James Belanich: I am a research psychologist for the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences (ARI). As part of ARI's Research and Advanced Concepts Office, I research training methodology and technology, looking for ways to make training more effective. Currently I am working to understand how specific aspects of game-based training tools (that is, instructional feedback and task difficulty) can be manipulated to increase training effectiveness. I'm also studying how to reduce the time required to modify existing game-based training tools so we can incorporate lessons learned more rapidly.

GS: Both of you work with serious games. What does the expression "serious games" mean to you, and how have you used them in the past?

PP: The primary purpose of serious games is to help players learn something real about the real world, not simply to entertain them. I have used a wide variety of games of this type--not just computer games but card games and board games as well--to support research sponsors in the military, homeland security, and public health fields.

JB: I agree. The primary goal of a "serious game" is something other than entertainment. That primary goal can vary widely across serious games, but the area that most interests me is training. For training games, the primary goal is to introduce and train a particular domain, or to practice a skill that needs further refinement.

GS: Dr. Perla, can you give an example of a game you've used for military research?

PP: A few years ago I led an effort to design and use a game for DARPA. The purpose of the research was to explore the use of gaming to conduct experiments related to shared situation awareness. This game is called SCUDHunt. We had a small subcontractor, ThoughtLink, Inc., who worked with us and implemented SCUDHunt as an online game. The closest commercial product is probably the old classic Battleship game.

In its current incarnation, SCUDHunt is a multiplayer (usually four on a team) online game. Players work together to deploy intelligence assets and interpret their reports to try to locate hidden missile launchers. The goal of the game is to explore how factors such as interplayer communications, shared visualization tools, and command structures affect the development of a shared view of the world, as well as how accurately the players are able to locate the targets. We tracked results and used statistical analysis to determine whether we had evidence of any significant effects for the variables we studied.

GS: In your experience, how do commercial games compare to serious games in terms of performance and user experience?

PP: More and more, the players of serious games expect that the graphics, interface, and AI should equal or exceed commercial standards. The biggest difference I see is that the interface and gameplay in a serious game reflect the actual sources of information and the interfaces to that information that are available to real-world decision makers. The interfaces in commercial entertainment games tend to be more cartoonlike, with a lot of emphasis on sexy animation and less on hard information.

GS: What made you decide to adopt serious games in your work? What's the benefit?

JB: Games have the potential for being great training tools for some skill sets. Although there are some circumstances in which serious games are not the optimal solution, in other cases the games will be better than the training they replace.

PP: Games can provide a different perspective on some problems than you get from the more usual techniques of operations research and systems analysis. Games focus on human decisions. Analysis as practiced in the defense community--and other arenas in which serious games are making an inroad--focuses more on physics.

GS: "Physics" in the sense of logistical constraints?

PP: Physics in the sense of how well systems and machines perform in the real world, but generally an idealized real world that abstracts or ignores human effects, like training, morale, and leadership. Field exercises tend to focus most on giving real forces the opportunity to carry out decisions and actions using real people and equipment, but with many of those decisions restricted or preordained by exercise limitations. Although all these techniques overlap with one another, each works best in specific areas. By combining them with each other we get a really well-rounded perspective on the subjects of interest.

GS: So, in a nutshell?

PP: Serious games are a way to explore the possible effects of human decisions, to try to get a handle on the uncertainties--even more, to try to learn "what we didn't know we didn't know."

GS: In the next five years, how do you think your use of serious games might evolve?

JB: At the Army Research Institute, our focus is trying to identify ways that training games can be improved and be more-effective training tools. We are working on how natural language understanding and knowledge representation systems can be incorporated into training systems. We are also interested in how instructional feedback can be integrated smoothly into the flow of the game, so the instruction does not interfere with the immersive experience.

I think the understanding of training games is still fairly immature. There are more than a few developers that build fun and immersive games, and they expect that learning will just take place. They have built entertaining games for years, and they can do that well, but just because a game has a military theme and is commercially entertaining doesn't mean it teaches useful military skills and capabilities. I would hope in the next five years there is more of a focus on making sure that the serious games are based on solid research so they actually teach what is intended.

PP: And in fact, at the instigation of some of our colleagues at the Naval War College, we have begun to explore how to articulate and employ a scientific basis for wargaming.

That is, we want to lay a foundation of principles that will allow for better development and use of games to achieve specific goals by starting with some basic guidelines and then innovating off of them, rather than relying on the raw talent of fledgling game designers and starting from scratch each time. I also expect that we will continue to expand our ideas and applications from military to nonmilitary fields.

GS: How widespread is the use of serious games in the military? Are you aware of other departments in the Navy that commission or buy serious games?

PP: There are a number of Navy organizations that are involved in gaming. Primary among these are the Naval War College and the Naval Air Warfare Center - Training and Simulation Division, better known as NAWC-TSD.

JB: Yes, I believe there are several departments [in the Army] that develop or purchase serious games; some are currently being used for training, recruiting, and simulation.

GS: Military technology often trickles down to consumers--the best-known example of this "swords to plowshares dividend" in the game industry is probably Full Spectrum Warrior, a derivation of an Army training tool. Are there commercial prospects for any of the serious games that you work with?

PP: Well, I think there may be commercial prospects for some of the games I have been involved with directly, but they are of the card game or board game variety, so the commercial potential is miniscule compared to computer games! I have seen a few computer games that originated in military environments that might have commercial potential, but those have primarily been games developed by serious-games companies who already had that commercial potential in mind when they developed the games.

GS: Repurposing a serious game as a consumer product seems like a real prize for developers: Development has already been paid for, so any sales to the consumer market are pure gravy. On the other hand, releasing these games to consumers might provide them with too much insight into military training and procedures. How do you address this issue?

PP: This is an interesting question, one that requires careful consideration by those who approve such projects. Overall, however, I suspect that few games are likely to be commercially viable in anything close to their militarily useful version.

It is axiomatic that real combat is weeks of unmitigated boredom punctuated by seconds of sheer terror. Real combat planning is weeks of endless meetings punctuated by hours of painful PowerPoint briefings. Neither of those facts is likely to appeal to the civilian gamer.

The majority of civilian computer gamers seem to want instantaneous feedback. That is probably one of the reasons that first-person-shooter games seem so popular. In my limited experience of it, the military use of first-person-shooter-style games is more about teaching the soldiers the battle drill--of how to behave as part of the unit--than it is about how to shoot their weapons.

JB: Protecting military security is always our top priority. However, one way to look at this issue is by separating gaming technology and domain knowledge. For example, the technology for developing game characters with AI to control their behavior can be incorporated into consumer products without sharing specific character models containing domain knowledge that would be militarily sensitive.

GS: Your background might give you an interesting perspective on a current hot topic in the game industry. Recently, Florida attorney Jack Thompson has attracted a lot of media attention for his crusade against game violence. He refers to violent games like GTA III as "murder simulators" and claims that games desensitize gamers to violence and train them to kill. How does this theory mesh with your experience using games for education and analysis?

PP: There is no relationship between this theory and my experience in using games for education and analysis. Our work in the serious-games world is disconnected from the kinds of cartoonlike violence in games like Grand Theft Auto.

GS: Peter and James, thank you both.